Richard S. Wheeler, who succeeds at the impossible task of making a living by writing Westerns, has written “A Literary Memoir” which describes how he “climbed the mast of a sinking ship.” It is well-worth reading, but there is a caveat. Asking Wheeler about personal information is a little like asking Cary Grant whom he slept with last night and whether that person was any good in the sack. The reaction is first stunned silence, and then a change of subject. You’ll get roughly the same reaction if you try to dish dirt about the evil devils known to be out there in the book world. Wheeler is a gentleman.
You can tell by looking at him. No dung-caked boots, no broad-brimmed hat, no worn-out jeans. Rather, the garb of a midwestern editor or newspaperman, both of which he has been: navy blue blazer, gray flannel slacks, stingy brim hat. Not that he couldn’t ride a horse if he had to, and not that he hasn’t had long patches of Scott Fitzgerald life in the early days, but his intention now is to stay warm, keep the house paid up, listen to others spin the yarns, and keep on writing. As he notes, sixty books are a plenty good enough scope into his innards. If you can’t figure it out, check your own innards. (That’s my advice. He would never say anything so rude.)
It appears from the outside as though he (as my uncle said about my cousin) “started at the top and worked his way down.” That is, at university he set out to be a pundit (“One who is or assumes the part of an expert in making pronouncements, criticisms, predictions, etc.”) and made a pretty good stab at it, writing editorials. Of course, it’s much easier to be a pundit if you’re in your twenties, but gradually, his age and inexperience betrayed him. There were a couple of flings with Hollywood, where he hobnobbed with Olivia deHaviland and the like while he tried to sell screenplays or at least ghost a few star memoirs. (That’s the stuff we want to know about, Richard!) But all the pretensions and aspirations were smashed when his first marriage hit the wall and he was found weeping and incoherent at his desk.
After that, the world kept reconfiguring around him except that he held on to the idea that he loved the West, esp. around Santa Fe and Billings. When he hit the very lowest point, he began to write Westerns because he knew the territory. But because during his editing years he was working on major intellectual books and during his years as an acquiring editor he read tons of Westerns, he managed to produce a kind of crossbreed: thoughtful and atypical Westerns.
“Westerns” are not considered to be highclass and the la-di-dah do not read them. Books about the West are piled in two heaps, one rather pretentiously called “literature” where the most popular writers are people like Cormac McCarthy who go out of their way to depict degraded gruesomeness or Ed Abbey who arguably advocates terrorism. The other is called “genre” and over there people just shoot each other all the time. Both use a lot of history.
So here’s Richard, writing “sweaty” genre stuff, as though it were literature. And here he is as a person, no longer pretentious and never prepared to scoff at those struggling to survive, since he’s been there, done that. His own development as a person was on an ascending gradient as his pundit quotient sharply declined. Only his wardrobe didn’t change.
And again he’s done a crossover into historical biography, generally considered literature. But he has such loyalty to the Western Writers of America, genre people in general, that he doesn’t make a fuss about it. In another of those unaccountable reconfigurations, Western genre literature has been invaded by all sorts of even lower-prestige self-publishers and dabblers in porn and etc. How far up the mast can a guy go?
The crow’s nest, right? The point on the ship where one can see far and maybe sight land. So when he writes a book about it -- even though it might better be called “The Reluctant Memoirist” -- we should pay attention.
A couple of summers ago, broke and a little confused myself, I set out to read as many genre Westerns as I could -- hadn’t done that since Zane Grey -- since I already had read shelves of trendy Western Literature. After I read the first Wheeler Western, I wrote him a fan letter. Back came a box of 17 Wheeler books. I read ‘em all. They confirmed what I already suspected: some genre Westerns are a heckuva lot better than some fancy WL and some admired WL is below the usual genre standard. I wrote 17 reviews, posted them on Amazon, and the rest is a friendship.
There are two ways Wheeler shines. One comes, I think, from his years in Method acting classes in Hollywood, which I also have in my background. (Neither one of us acts or intends to.) Method acting is not about mumbling, as is popularly supposed, but rather is about trying to recapture a moment of the past by recalling the sensory record of that time: smell, taste, color, temperature, and whatever else can be brought back. For some physiological reason, this triggers in the actor the emotion of that moment in a way so vivid that an onlooker is convinced of its authenticity. “Method” works in writing as well as acting, and gives Wheeler access to the interior of his characters, besides making his settings real.
The other way is that his general educational background is so broad and his own experience is so deep, he’s able to find the atypical that is often overlooked. In the art world the example might be Mian Situ’s evocation of the Chinese in the West. Indeed, in print we’ve had scholarly inquiries into women, children, blacks, Jews and Hispanics in the West, all respected WL categories, but Wheeler put them into genre tales.
The next step along these two lines was historical biography: the recovery of the conjectured interior life of Meriwether Lewis, Buffalo Bill, Bat Masterson, Thomas Francis Meagherm and Doctor John McLoughlin, the “White-Headed Eagle.” This enterprise rather challenged those history buffs who feel they have custody of the myths and do not want them changed.
How did he make it? What was his final secret? Friendship. Generosity. The Cary Grant factor. In many ways this book is an homage to all the writers and editors and agents who stick together, preserve their ideals, form a community of the solitary because they are all in the same boat. Pundits don’t always think of that.
But I'll try my hand at being a pundit. In Wheeler's real life he has married his genre approach to high-class Western Literature in the most literal way: marrying Sue Hart, who is a professor of Western Literature at the Eastern University of Montana. I predict that the two categories of writing about the West will find some kind of marriage as well.